The Best and Worst U.S. Airports for Holiday Travel

Nov 8, 2019

The weather outside may not be frightful just yet, but with reports of “Christmas season creeping in even earlier” and the perma-scent of #PSL in the air, there’s no denying that the holidays are all but here. Whether that’s your cue to book a ticket home—or to head in the other direction (say, Bali)—you’ll have to start your journey at one of the nation’s 5,000+ public airports, whose facilities you’ll most likely be sharing with, oh, a billion or so fellow travelers. Really.

And while conventional wisdom holds that every airport breeds misery during the holidays, stats beg to differ. CompareCards’ recently-released analysis of the last decade’s worth of USDOT holiday flight data will open your eyes, and in some cases, drop your jaw. (We’re looking at you, LaGuardia veterans.) Read on to discover the best and worst airports for holiday travel, and how to make the best of all of them.

Worst

1. Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW)

Sorry, Second City friends. The worst and second-worst airports for holiday delays or cancellations are yours, with Midway earning the dubious honor of first place. Why? An on-time departure rate of just 62.7 percent around Christmas. Doesn’t help that the airport’s ongoing renovations have made seating scarce in places—and security lines occasionally epic (as in, snaking-into-the-parking-lot epic).

If you find yourself with some time here: Breathe out your stress in the Yoga Room (open daily from 6am to 10pm), a bamboo-floored, light-filled space with exercise mats and storage. If you’d rather stress-eat, head to Gold Coast Dogs, where the Chicago Style Jumbo Char Dog ought to do the trick. For something lighter (in case that holiday party frock in your suitcase doesn’t have much give), consider Arami, an outpost of the popular West Town sushi spot.

2. Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD)

O’Hare does slightly better than its nearby counterpart: 65 percent of the flights that leave from here touch down within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival times during the Christmas season. And because O’Hare is a major U.S. hub, any delays here can create a nightmarish nationwide ripple effect.

If you find yourself with some time here: Start by cooling your jets with a self-guided walking tour of the art commissions and donations. Highlights include the 745-foot-long kinetic light sculpture that connects the B and C concourses in Terminal 1, and Guy Kemper’s 50-foot-long Jet Trails—a sculpture made of hand-blown painted glass. Or just want to peace out in the Urban Garden, an aeroponic installation (the first of its kind when it opened in 2011on the mezzanine level of the Terminal 3 Rotunda Building). O’Hare also has a Yoga Room, but if you’ve got serious time to kill—and stress to work out—you may want to spring for the $20 pass to the health club at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport, where you’ll find a gym, steam room and sauna, lap pool and locker rooms. (The hotel is accessible via an underground walkway from every domestic terminal.) Or, if you’re leaning more vice than virtue, hit the Billy Goat Tavern & Grill, whose original location is said to have inspired SNL’s legendary Cheezborger! sketch. Want to go a bit foodier? Try The Publican Tavern, an outpost of the West Loop mainstay from Michelin-starred chef Paul Kahan—or Tortas Frontera from Chef Rick Bayless.

3. Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)

Beyond CompareCards’ findings that this airport has the nation’s third worst rate of Christmastime delays, there’s a pile-on of other sad stats: The same analysis found that Newark has the nation’s highest rate of seasonal cancellations (4%), and another recent study—this one conducted by Upgraded Points—found the airport's security lines to be the nation’s slowest (23.1 minutes on average, and up to an hour during peak travel times). 

If you find yourself with some time here: According to some savvy travelers, the best answer is “leave.” Seriously. If you've got a major delay, check your bag and grab a Lyft to the nearby Newark Museum, the largest museum in the state, or grab some incredible eats in the largely Portuguese Ironbound neighborhood. If going off-campus isn’t an option, consider the d-partures spa offerings in Terminal C, which go beyond the standard chair massages to offer eye treatments, sheet mask facials, mani/pedis and polish changes, haircuts, washes and blowouts. (Delays and holiday prep stress be damned, why not show up at grandma’s looking decided unlike the feral beast you're sure you've become?) And though the food scene is mainly chains, a recent $120 million redesign plan has brought some upgrades—especially in the United terminal, where options range from Daily (with a farm-to-table menu that changes, well, daily) to Mélange Bakery & Chocolaterie by cacao king Jacques Torres. If you're high status with United, though, you may want to proceed directly to Classified, because when else in your life do you eat at invitation-only restaurants?

4. Denver International Airport (DEN)

This is a classic case of good news, bad news. We'll start with the bad (because it's what landed Denver in this section of the story): DEN ties for fourth place in the category of holiday delays or cancellations. For the good news, see below.

If you find yourself with some time here: A skating rink, local eateries and conspiracy theories. Denver’s main airport—which is twice the size of Manhattan, but still environmentally-conscious—has all that and more. So you’ll have almost too much choice when yours is one of the 32.7 percent of flights that's delayed here at Christmastime. If you need a little help getting into the holiday spirit (or a lot of help, if you’re facing down a many-hour delay), hit the 40x60-foot skating rink, complete with decorations, carolers and holiday-themed movies. Or take your inner tin foil hat wearer on a conspiracy theory tour (for starters, see if you spot apocalyptic clues in the airport’s artwork). When you’ve worked up an appetite, go veg-forward at Root Down, an outpost of the LoHi favorite (but this one’s backed by a self-watering green wall). Other great local options include the microbrews at Boulder Beer Tap House, and the homemade frozen treats (there’s even an Illuminati Shake, in a nod to conspiracy theorists) at Little Man Ice Cream. PSA: If you’ve forgotten anyone on your gift list, the last-minute gift game here is strong. There’s everything from chic-simple jewelry at Bearfruit to creative kiddie loot at the Kazoo & Company Toy Store. (And for self-gifting: There’s ample reading material at the local indie bookstore, The Tattered Cover.) What you won’t score here? CBD- or THC-infused products. Though both are famously legal in Colorado, they're not federally (even if you’re flying to another state where they’re allowed), so you’ll have to find a different stocking stuffer for your brother—and some instant relaxation for yourself at one of the airport’s spas, or via the Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS), a gang of more than 100 roving therapy dogs (and one cat named Xeli).

4. William P. Hobby Airport (HOU)

Tied for fourth place, Houston’s Hobby takes hits for not just Christmastime delays and cancellations (33 percent of its departures are late), but also its rep among passengers for broken power outlets and less-than-stellar customer service, among other issues.

If you find yourself with some time here: Aviation fans should take the 10-minute taxi ride over to the 1940 Air Terminal Museum, a restored historic terminal and hangar where you’ll find exhibits, films and great views of Hobby, so you can keep tabs on the situation over there. If you’d feel more comfortable waiting at the terminal, there a few unique shops to check out, from the PGA Tour store to the NASA-themed kiosk. Then again, if you're feeling totally done in by a multi-hour wait, you may do like a drill team just did during a 10-hour(!!) delay and dance it out at the gate

5. John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK)

More than 59 million passengers pass through New York City’s main international airport each year, so crowds, long lines, and runway waits are the peak-travel-season norm. Right around Christmas, 29.3 percent of flights tend to be delayed, and 3.5 canceled outright.

If you find yourself with some time here: The size does mean there’s a breadth of facilities to choose from (more in some terminals than others), and these include gift-buying ops that don’t scream, “I left my holiday shopping to the last possible minute.” At the spendy end of the spectrum, you’ll find Bulgari, Ferragamo and Hermès, to name a few. At the holiday-bonus-wasn’t-quite-what-you'd-hoped-for end, there’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Met Store and kiosks from Amazon and Best Buy. And for your frazzled self, there’s Terminal 5’s be relax spa, where the styling and nail services will leave you looking shockingly celebration-ready—if you ever make the party. And NYC’s chefs have ensured that you won’t go hungry. Danny Meyer alone is responsible for two good options—Shake Shack and Blue Smoke—and Marcus Samuelsson, for a third:Uptown Brasserie (carpe delay: have the legendary chicken & waffles). Then there’s Deep Blue Sushi in Terminal 5, so beloved that travelers have been known to arrive early for a flight—or stay on after one—just to bite into these rolls. But the ultimate spot to kill time at JFK (and earn major ‘gram likes in the process) is the recently opened TWA Hotel, home to retro-cool bars and lounges (one of them inside a historic “Connie” plane), plus a restaurant from Jean-Georges Vongerichten and a rooftop pool with unreal views.  

Best

1. Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL)

Given that Hawaii is such a popular holiday getaway, its main hub’s seasonal stats are extra impressive: 86.2 percent on-time departures and a mere 0.4 percent cancelled. As locals and frequent fliers to Honolulu note, though, the airport is a bit of a maze, so despite the great stats, you’ll want to leave yourself a cushion.  

If you find yourself with some time here: Don’t miss the Hawaiian-, Japanese- and Chinese-inspired Cultural Gardens near Terminal 1, nor the art collection that was sponsored by the State Foundation on Culture. You could also sip Hawaiian-made craft brews at Atrium Bar and Kona Brewery; snag packaged local foods (perfect stocking-stuffers) at Hawaii Market and Honolulu Cookie Company; or pick out a lei at the 12 stands where—since the 1940s—craftspeople have been turning out the ultimate in Hawaiiana.

2. Kahului Airport (OGG)

Team Hawaii continues to represent: The second-best holiday stats belong to Maui’s two-runway main airport, where 84.6 percent of holiday departures are on time, and you're looking at just a 0.5 percent chance of cancellation. Bonus points for the curb-to-gate time: 30 minutes, in many travelers’ experience.

If you find yourself with some time here: Clearly, there’s not much chance of that, which is probably a good thing—because there’s not much in the way of distractions. The lei stands do stock beautiful reminders of your island time, while the open-air design lets you soak in every last minute of it. And if you’re a fan of Maui resident Sammy Hagar (or you’re just hungry), hit Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill for locally-inspired fare.

3. Portland International Airport, Portland (PDX)

Consistently voted one of the best domestic airports by travel magazines, PDX backs up its cred with a 78.4 percent on-time rate during the holidays.

If you find yourself with some time here: You might actually be relieved. Especially if you were feeling almost too haggard to board now anyway: You can have a teleconference with a doctor and get over-the-counter meds at Providence Express Care before security. Or if you’re feeling merely scruffy (and you’re a guy), you can clean up at the old-school Barbers. But all travelers can take advantage of the airport's cultural programming. Check out the art exhibits, live music and—to achieve peak Portlandia—indie movie shorts in an onsite theater. There’s also a holistic (natch) day spa and a rotating selection of food carts. One particularly beloved cart—Bangkok Express—now has a brick-and-mortar incarnation here, and clearly, it's a good spot to try. A few other local favorites: Blue Star Donuts, Tamale Boy and Mo’s Seafood & Chowder (a family-owned institution since 1946). And this being Portland, you should probably have some craft beer: There’s Laurelwood Public House brewery (whose growlers make for perfect Portland gifts), Deschutes Brewery (where even some of the food is made with house beer) and Henry’s Tavern (32 taps—and good burgers to boot). 

4. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)

Like its PNW neighbor, Sea-Tac likes to stick to schedules (with a 78.3 percent on-time departure rate during the holidays), fill you with local specialties and ensure no one on your gift list gets stiffed.

If you find yourself with some time here: The rocking chair-filled Central Terminal is a bright and airy spot for watching planes, and it’s lined with a mix of big-brand retailers and homegrown spots. If you’re on the hunt for music (and in Seattle, why wouldn’t you be?), check out Sub Pop, a music-and-more emporium named for the famed local record label. Farther into the terminals, there’s Chalo Seattle for well-designed accessories and homeware; Planewear for aviation- and travel-themed loot; Made in Washington for artisan products and foods; and Fireworks, an acclaimed art emporium. Like Portland, Sea-Tac also has a robust arts and culture program, so as you wander, you’ll find sculptures, photography, glass pieces and other installations, plus live concerts by local acts (lest you forget you’re in Seattle) seven days a week. Once you’ve had your fill of culture, move on to the food scene, where you’ll find beloved chilaquiles and donut holes at Skillet, impossible-to-choose-between sandwiches and mac and cheese at Beecher’s Handmade Cheeses, and handmade confections at Dilettante (where, P.S., the beautifully-wrapped chocolate boxes make for great gifts). Then there’s the airport’s unicorn: actual, functioning mail service—in more than one place, even.

5. LaGuardia Airport (LGA)

If you hear a collective “whut?!” coming out of NYC, the likely cause is LGA’s appearance on the Best side of this list. The Big Apple’s second-largest airport is also its most maligned thanks to substandard terminals and outdated facilities. Turns out, though, that the airport has a shockingly respectable 77.7-percent on-time departure record during the holidays. And things should only get better, given the $8 billion-plus renovation that’s supposed to be completed by 2021 (for now, unfortunately, the work has only added to the airport’s hassles).

If you find yourself with some time here: Things are improving in sections, with some of the newly-redone terminals offering plenty to keep you entertained—and very well-fed. The most recent part, which started operating this month, is a 105,000-square foot-concourse with floor-to-ceiling views of the Mets’ CitiField stadium. You’ll also find larger gate areas with in-seat connectivity, and restaurant menus designed by local icons, from Chef Mark Iacano of Brooklyn’s Lucali to the team behind Soho’s King Restaurant. Sit-down options also include Crust pizza from Sullivan Street’s Jim Lahey, Cotto from Marea chef Michael White, and Biergarten, with small plates and craft beers chosen by Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster Garrett Oliver (the term “garden” here is used loosely, of course.)

More Great Deals & Tips